It’s not just Labor supporters who are asking these questions. Everyone is.
The polls are unable to provide an answer. They proved to have no predictive value. Psephologists explain that since pollsters have changed their sampling techniques in the face of changes to communications technology, they no longer harvest the representative sample that statisticians know is essential for accurate results. They may never recover their stature.
So how did an expected Labor victory turn into a such a discouraging loss? Why did it? Many have attempted to give answers. Here’s mine.
Mind you, the Morrison win is being termed a ‘miracle’ only because the LNP, as judged by the opinion polls and the betting markets, was considered a rank outsider. There has been no massive change in the state of the parties such as would be seen in a 'landslide'. The LNP has gained four seats and Labor has lost four. The percentage of the vote received by all the major parties is down. One Nation and the United Australia Party have taken up the slack. The raw figures
show the ‘win’ is not so spectacular at all. Morrison will have to deal with the actual numbers. He will need lots of miracles to manage them.
As in all complex issues, there are always a variety of answers and a multiplicity of contributing factors. Distilling them into a few essentials runs the risk of over-simplification. But it needs to be done.
The voters of Australia, predominantly in Queensland, produced this result. Why was it so?
Clearly, they preferred what the Coalition had to offer over what Labor had.
So what did the Coalition offer?
Not all that much. It offered modest personal tax cuts for us all now, and large ones for high income earners in the future; it offered a budget surplus next year and subsequently; it assured us it would run a ‘strong economy’ that would support all the services we need; as usual, it promised ‘jobs and growth’; it allotted billions to ‘congestion-busting’ infrastructure in places where they thought it counted, notably the East-West road link in Melbourne and the Geelong fast train, and it assured us that it would keep us safe and our borders strong. Late in the campaign it floated one of its few-and-far-between policy initiatives, the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme to assist those buying their first home. Details were sketchy; criticism came from several quarters. It may never eventuate.
PM Morrison assured us over and again that ‘if we had a go, we’d get a go’. He urged us to be ‘aspirational’: to seek work, meet someone amazing, start a family, buy a home, start up a small business and save for our retirement. He assured us that the rewards would flow. He reminded us that ‘he was on our side’, and would 'burn for us every day'! He was a master of ‘feel-good’ messages. They resonated. He was equally adept at heavily negative messages: ‘Labor will give you higher taxes, more debt, and a weaker economy’, a ‘Retirement Tax’, and a ’Death Tax’ – just a few of the negative slogans that will stick in our memory.
But what else did he offer?
You heard him talk about cost of living pressures and inflated energy bills, but did you hear him offer a plan to reduce them? Did you hear one word about an energy policy? Were you made aware of his plans to get prices down? No, because he hasn’t got any.
He must have been aware of the increasing clamour for strong action on climate change. But did you hear him talk about his climate change policy, other than his platitudinous claims that they were on track to meet emissions targets ‘in a canter’, and reach Kyoto 20 and 30 targets easily. Did you hear him acknowledge the climate change emergency that scientists tell us about almost every day? No. You heard him talk about the need for a transition to renewables, but not about transitioning out of coal. He is as wedded to coal as ever. He had his Environment Minister approve Adani’s proposed groundwater safeguards just days before the election, thus giving the Adani mine a big tick.
Shorten highlighted the need to address climate change, as did the voters in Warringah and Indi with such verve, but lost out when he avoided giving an estimate of the cost of his climate policy. Voters saw his ”It’s more expensive to do nothing” as a cop out. Likewise, they regarded his promise to replace mining jobs with as least as many jobs in the renewables industry as hollow because he failed to provide any details.
Labor regularly highlights the gross inequality that afflicts our society, and the need to close the gap between the rich and the poor. We all know about the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, but when did you ever hear government ministers refer to them, except to castigate Labor for waging ‘class war’ against ‘the top end of town’? ‘Inequality’ is not in the lexicon of the LNP.
For years, economists and the Reserve Bank governor, as well as Labor spokespersons, have drawn attention to the issue of chronic wages stagnation. Workers languish year after year waiting for the largesse enjoyed by the business world to trickle down. They are still waiting. Did you hear anyone from the Coalition address this, except to say that an increase in wages is coming, and Treasurer Frydenberg hinting that it was already a fact? What we did hear though from Finance Minister Cormann was that keeping wages down was a deliberate government policy to support the economy!
The Coalition’s policies and plans are threadbare, as was described in The cupboard was bare. Morrison, who was almost the sole spokesmen because most other ministers were in ‘witness protection’, caressed the ears of voters with banal platitudes, reminiscent of the proverbial snake oil salesman. That’s not surprising – he started his public career as one.
While some voters might have found Morrison unacceptable, many accepted him as a ‘good bloke’, the common man in a baseball cap, ready to kick a footy or eat a sausage or drink a beer with the ordinary man. He carefully cultivated that ‘blokey’ image with his actions and words. He told us he was ‘speaking to the quiet people’, at home with the family, or at work. His jovial use of ‘How good is that?’ resonated. It was this homely image that voters carried into the voting booth.
Another factor that contributed to the outcome was the mainstream media, which consistently adopted an aggressive anti-Labor stance. Murdoch was out to Kill Bill and Labor. He succeeded!
Clive Palmer was another aggressive player. His blanket ads were all anti-Labor, and by gifting the Coalition his preferences, he helped them over the line in several seats. Where would the LNP have landed without Palmer? And what did he achieve? Nothing in the parliament, but his $60 million did secure his investment in his coal interests. That was always his intention.
What of Labor? What did it offer?
It offered Bill Shorten, who over the last six years has unified a talented team behind him, which was on full display during his campaign launch. He performed well in public debates, and in Q&A, which Morrison squibbed. But Shorten is still burdened with his Union background, and his history of aiding and abetting the overthrow of two Labor prime ministers. Although as a Union man he mixed well with workers, notably during the Beaconsfield mine tragedy, he seemed to be less at ease with the man in the street. He appeared ungainly, notably when taking his morning run. Somehow, he never achieved much popularity and was always behind his counterparts in opinion polls. He was said to be toxic in Queensland, possibly because of his ambivalent approach to the Adani mine, which was interpreted as a callous disregard for the employment prospects of Queenslanders.
Bob Brown made matters worse with his anti-Adani caravan that angered Queensland voters, who, like most of us, resent others telling us how to live our lives. GetUp was just as bad, and according to Peter Dutton and other Queensland LNP politicians, improved their vote.
Perhaps Shorten’s most telling drawback though was his inability to reduce to simple terms the complex legislative changes that Labor proposed. Changes to negative gearing, changes to capital gains on property and franking credits on investments are all difficult concepts to explain, yet were essential in raising revenue to fund Labor’s social policies: dental care for the elderly and subsidies to ease child care expenses. Laudable as these changes were, they were never explained in terms the man in the street could comprehend, and so they were easy to exploit by representing the revenue-raising component as taxes. What Shorten needed was simple yet memorable three word slogans, Abbott-style. We can still remember Abbott’s ‘Axe the Tax’, ‘Repay the debt’, ‘Stop the boats’, and ‘Stop the waste’. Chris Bowen, the author of the reforms, was of little help. His ‘If you don’t like our policies, don’t vote for us’ was ill-advised, even stupid.
Apart from its reform agenda though, Labor did offer bigger tax cuts, bigger surpluses, the closing of loopholes for the ‘top end of town’ a crack down on trusts and tax-avoiding multinationals, positive action on climate change, more renewables, cheaper power, a new ‘Jobs Tax Cut’, and a cluster of new wage, health, education, housing and infrastructure initiatives. The details are here.
Just as Tony Abbott represented a price on carbon as a ‘carbon tax’, and thereby killed the concept, Morrison represented Labor’s proposed reforms as a ‘Retiree Tax’, a ‘Housing Tax’, an ‘Investment Tax’, a ‘Family Business Tax’, a ‘Superannuation Tax’, a ‘Car Tax’, an ‘Electricity Tax’, and even as a ‘Death Tax’, which was never proposed. With the same ferocity that Abbott used the word ‘Tax’, Morrison was able to seriously damage Labor’s proposals. He augmented his attack with ‘Labor will hit you with $287 billion of new taxes’, ‘Bill Shorten will have his hands in your pocket’, and so on. These attacks resonated, as they were consistent with other Coalition memes: ‘Labor has a big taxing, big spending agenda’; ‘Labor wants to take your hard-earned savings from you.’
Morrison’s negativity was persistent. Every time he was asked a question he turned it against Labor. His scare campaign was relentless. Ministers that were let loose soon copied him, even although their utterances were as banal and untruthful as Morrison’s.
Labor strategists ought to have realized that such a ‘Tax attack’ was bound to occur, and should have taken steps to avoid it. They had no counter ready. Labor was unable to recover from Morrison’s repeated assaults.
In the future, political strategists will shrink from presenting a comprehensive reform agenda in advance of an election, knowing that it will be mauled by opponents, distorted, and turned into negative rhetoric. This election should teach planners that details of complex reforms are unlikely to be understood. We remember though that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating successfully introduced a complex reform agenda that reset our entire financial system to accommodate the global changes that were taking place. They, however, were able to explain what they were doing, and why. Contemporary Labor seems to lack the skills these doyens displayed.
Moreover, Labor seems unaware of the common human trait of self-interest. As Paul Keating said: ”In a two horse race, always back self-interest because at least you know it’s trying”. Self-interest motivated many voters to turn against Labor. They saw Labor’s proposals as taking something from them: refunds on franking credits, and the right to buy more than one property and negative gear. They were angry that what they regarded as ‘their rights’ were being ‘stolen’ from them. Self-funded retirees and family investors were so upset they took out their angst at the polling booth. Labor strategists should have been aware of this possibility and taken preventive action. They didn’t.
Another factor in this election is a common human trait: resistance to change. Many people, set in their ways, do not want to change, no matter how enticing the change might look. Morrison seemed well aware of this. His rhetoric reflected a ‘steady as she goes’ approach. He did not ‘frighten the horses’. His consistent message was that he would look after voters, keep the economy strong, and protect them from threats. To those who eschew change, his words were reassuring. Labor’s changes, exciting as they were to true believers, frightened the timid.
What can we glean from this analysis? Here is my assessment and a few suggestions.
Keep messages simple and memorable. Phrase them in the vernacular. Compose them carefully and then workshop them to distill out the most engaging language. Field test them and refine. Repeat them in the same form over and again. Use them like nursery rhymes that people can learn and repeat. ‘Mary had a little lamb’ will forever be in our memory. We might tire of hearing: ‘Jobs and Growth’, but we will never forget those irritating words. Morrison knew how potent they were, and how strongly they resonated with ‘working families’.
Avoid presenting complex concepts. Reform agendas need to be refined into a few catchy phrases. It’s counterproductive to argue that such an approach will ‘dumb down’ the voters. If it isn’t understandable and memorable, it’s a useless communication, which will be ignored, certainly forgotten. Being too smart by half is stupid. Good communicators can reduce complex ideas to simple words. Political parties needs to engage them.
Be aware that most people are resistant to change. Fashion communications in a way that promotes a ‘steady as she goes’ approach that doesn’t frighten the voters. Good communicators do this consistently.
Anticipate questions and problems that might be evoked by every piece of publicity, and have answers ready. Hesitation in responding is interpreted as ‘not knowing what you’re talking about’.
On a more personal level, engage experts to assess the habitual behaviours of members of the team so that adverse ones can be eliminated. In particular, assess their communication skills. Hide those that can’t do the job. Thoroughly train those who are assigned a public role. Impress on them the importance of building trust by connecting with voters, speaking their language, and understanding their views.
So there it is – my appraisal of ‘How’ and “Why’. I trust the suggestions I’ve made make sense. If they don’t, please tell me.
- Keep it simple.
- Speak plainly.
- Use catchy slogans.
- Field test them.
- Repeat them often.
- Select only top communicators.
- Have ready answers to anticipated questions.
- Offer benefits; don’t take them away.
- Introduce changes slowly; fully explain their purpose.
- Alter policy gradually.
- Connect strongly with ordinary people; mix with them often, talk their language.
- Build trust.
- Don’t ‘frighten the horses’.